Skip to main content

Governor-General Julie Payette delivers the Throne Speech in the Senate chamber, on Dec. 5, 2019 in Ottawa.POOL/Reuters

If the current national-unity tensions are about bridging action on climate change with the oil and gas economy of Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Throne Speech gave us an inkling of where Justin Trudeau expects to find the bridge: closer to climate change than Alberta.

Climate change was at the centre of this outline of the Liberal agenda, in the number of words devoted to it, the number of proposals listed and rhetorical emphasis: It was recognized as the “defining challenge of the time.”

The other side of the national-unity tensions that have been palpable since Mr. Trudeau was re-elected was treated more vaguely, and briefly.

Alberta wasn’t mentioned, nor Saskatchewan, nor any province. The speech didn’t use the words “oil” or “gas” or “pipeline,” though it did declare the government would work to get resources to new markets. There was a generic recognition that “regional economic concerns” are justified.

You can see the politics at play here, and the survival strategy for a minority Parliament.

The Prime Minister needs parliamentary support from the parties to his left on environmental issues, from the NDP, Bloc Québécois and Greens, and any explicit reference to pipelines in a Throne Speech might jeopardize that. And, in the next election, the Liberals will be counting on winning seats not in Alberta or Saskatchewan but in Quebec and B.C. where buying a pipeline was a liability.

That political strategy translated more broadly across most of the second-term Liberal agenda that was outlined as Governor-General Julie Payette read the Throne Speech. It leaned to the Liberals’ left, with talk of inclusion, reconciliation, protecting pensions, taking steps to pharmacare, and a suggestion that including dental care in medicare, proposed by the NDP, is “worth exploring.” There was little attempt to reach across to the Conservatives.

It is no shock that the imperative of parliamentary survival and the calculations of electoral politics can be heard in this speech loud and clear. Nor is it surprising to hear the government declare that Canadians want action on climate change. They do.

Yet it is still striking that in a speech that struck a tone of unity and collaboration, Mr. Trudeau’s government didn’t find a more direct way to try to soothe the frustrations in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

So where does this speech leave Liberal efforts to reach out to those parts of the country?

Outside of Parliament, for one thing.

If Mr. Trudeau’s government is going to make concessions or arrangements to address oil patch anger, it is likely to come through executive action, not legislation. Ottawa might be able to negotiate with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on the implementation of industrial carbon pricing, but not on rewriting environmental legislation. Over to you, Chrystia Freeland.

But although the rhetoric of the speech didn’t include a lot of sops to Alberta and Saskatchewan, the substance did not set up new obstacles for making deals with Mr. Kenney or Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe either.

The emphasis on climate change didn’t include calls to increase planned carbon prices or tighten industrial regulation. It focused on carbon burned by consumers, rather than hydrocarbons produced in the oil patch. It outlined plans to make energy-efficient homes more affordable, make zero-emissions cars more accessible and make electricity greener – in other words, policies that don’t fall primarily on the oil and gas industry.

Maybe that leaves enough room for Mr. Trudeau to work on some kind of deal with Mr. Kenney or Mr. Moe, or to ease anxiety that federal climate policies will wreck the economy of their provinces. Certainly Canada won’t succeed in constructing an effective climate policy over the long term without bridging the gap in some way. But when Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals outlined a unity and co-operation agenda for their second term, they didn’t really reach across that divide.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.